It’s a Marvelous Night for a Sundance


An impressive number of Columbia filmmakers participated in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Check out these stats.

It’s a Marvelous Night for Sundance

Woman of the Year

Hari Nef ’15CC on the ''Transparent'' set. / Photograph by Jennifer Clason / Amazon Studios

Since graduating last spring with a degree in theater, Hari Nef ’15CC has made her runway debut at New York City’s fashion week, been featured in Vogue, earned a coveted modeling contract with IMG, and nabbed a recurring role on the hit Amazon series Transparent.

It’s an impressive list for any actress and model. For Nef it was also groundbreaking. She is the first openly transgender model to sign with IMG — she transitioned while at Columbia — and one of very few in the entire field.

“I’ve always been obsessed with fashion,” says Nef. “But I never thought that anyone would see me in that light.”

Nef says she owes her modeling career to connections she made while interning for several fashion designers during her time at Columbia.

“I knew a lot of photographers from my internships. When my appearance started to change, they wanted to shoot me,” Nef says.

Nef posted the photos to her robust Instagram account (@harinef) and started to get a reaction from some unexpected people — including Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, a show that follows a Los Angeles family in the wake of the patriarch’s gender transition.

“I thought that maybe they’d fly me out to do a cameo, but I was lucky enough to get a role in the second season,” Nef says. “The show resonates with me for a lot of reasons. I give it a lot of credit for contributing to the change in our collective consciousness around trans issues.”

Nef says the year ahead will be filled with auditions and more modeling work, though she admits that the last twelve months will be difficult to top.

“I told Vogue that the only thing that would make my year better is frozen yogurt and girl talk with Caitlyn Jenner,” Nef says. “That still hasn’t happened. But maybe she reads Columbia Magazine.”

Young Lions

40 Under 40

The Chronicle of Philanthropy named four Columbians to its inaugural “40 Under 40” list, which recognizes extraordinary contributions to the nonprofit and social-enterprise worlds:

Data scientist Bob Filbin ’12GSAS was honored for his work with the Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit hotline that operates entirely by text. Filbin had learned that text requests took up a disproportionate amount of time at traditional crisis-counseling centers; using data analysis, he was able to identify those frequent texters and encourage them to get help. More than eleven million text messages have been exchanged since the nonprofit was founded in 2013.

Donnel Baird ’13BUS was recognized for his company Bloc Power, which retrofits buildings in low-income neighborhoods with energy-efficient equipment. (For more on Bloc Power, see Columbia Magazine’s Winter 2015 feature story “Power for the People.”)

Philanthropist Liesel Pritzker Simmons ’06CC is known for making a social impact not only through giving, but through economic empowerment. An heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, she is the founder of the Blue Haven Initiative, which has invested $50 million in social and environmental causes.

Ommeed Sathe ’00CC is a pioneer in the field of “impact investments” — investments that try to create social good in addition to financial returns. As a vice president at Prudential Financial, he oversees a $500 million portfolio. Prudential plans to increase the amount of money it invests to one billion dollars by 2020.

30 Under 30

Twelve Columbia alumni, two faculty members, and five students were featured in Forbes magazine’s annual “30 Under 30.” The list, edited by Caroline Howard ’01JRN, recognizes six hundred innovators across twenty different industries, from science to social entrepreneurship. This year’s alumni winners include:

Amanda Gutterman ’13CC, Media
As a cofounder of Slant, a website that offers its writers a share of revenue, Gutterman is changing the way freelancers get compensated for their work.

Jordana Kier ’14BUS, Retail and E-commerce
Kier’s direct-to-consumer, subscription-based company Lola, which sells hypoallergenic organic-cotton tampons, has raised $1.2 million in less than a year.

Shana Knizhnik ’10CC, Media
A law clerk on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Knizhnik is the woman behind the popular “Notorious RBG” Tumblr, which celebrates America’s favorite dissenting Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59LAW. This past October, Knizhnik published a best-selling book based on her blog.

Stephanie Korey ’15BUS, Retail and E-commerce
Korey ran the supply chain at high-profile startups Warby Parker and Caspar before launching her own luxury luggage company, Away.

Christopher Lorn ’10CC, Marketing and Advertising
An analytics whiz, Lorn has developed digital campaigns for companies like Samsung Mobile and Purina through the digital agency Big Spaceship. He recently joined Philip Morris International.

Roy Moran ’12LAW, Law & Policy
Moran has a job that would make any twelve-year-old jealous: lead counsel at FanDuel, the wildly successful fantasy-sports website.

Heben Nigatu ’14CC, Media
Nigatu is the cohost of BuzzFeed’s popular new podcast Another Round, which has attracted guests like Hillary Clinton and New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, and which boasts several hundred thousand subscribers.

Rami Rahal ’09SEAS, Venture Capital
Rahal founded his venture-capital firm Blue Cloud Ventures at the age of twenty-five; it has since raised more than $65 million, largely by investing in subscription-software companies.

Chelsey Roebuck ’10SEAS, Education
Roebuck’s nonprofit Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering (ELiTE) helps people generally underrepresented in these fields gain access to educational opportunities like summer camps, school programs, and e-learning.

Jerelyn Rodriguez ’11CC, Education
Rodriguez’s nonprofit The Knowledge House, which she founded in her native South Bronx in 2014, has sent more than three hundred young people from low-income communities into careers in technology and entrepreneurship.

Anna Stork ’11GSAPP, Social Entrepreneurship
Stork’s company LuminAID provides inflatable solar-powered lights to partners like Doctors Without Borders and ShelterBox for use in natural disasters.

Michael Tannenbaum ’10CC, Finance
As a vice president at financial startup SoFi, Tannenbaum helped raise one billion dollars in investment, the largest ever for a financial-tech company.

Global Entry

Akshay Shah ’14SEAS has been named one of the inaugural Schwarzman Scholars — a program at Beijing’s Tsinghua University that is already being equated with the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. Funded by Blackstone Group chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman and boasting an advisory board that includes Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger, and Yo-Yo Ma, the program describes its goal as preparing the next generation of global leaders.

Shah was one of three thousand applicants from 135 countries vying for the 111 spots. At Columbia, Shah was an electrical-engineering major, 2014 class president, a Columbia University senator, and one of ten undergraduate students nationwide to win an IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society scholarship. Since graduation, he has been working as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company.

Recipe for Success

Diane Paulus ’97SOA directs a read-through of ''Waitress'' in Boston. / Photograph by Kati Mitchell

Diane Paulus ’97SOA will make theater history this spring with her production of Waitress — the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team (director, writer, composer, and choreographer). The show, which opened in previews this March, is based on a 2007 movie written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. It tells the story of a small-town waitress who dreams of opening her own pie shop. She is derailed by a loveless marriage and unexpected pregnancy, until a baking contest offers her a way out.

Paulus is known for her innovative direction of Broadway revivals and her use of women in traditionally male roles. She was nominated for the Tony Award for best direction for her revival of Hair in 2009, was at the helm of the Tony-winning revival of Porgy and Bess in 2012, and won the Tony for best direction for her revival of Pippin in 2013. Waitress was first produced as a musical last summer at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Paulus serves as artistic director. 

Startup Spotlight: Party Like It’s 1799

Sam Bodkin ’12CC has always been a music lover, though when he first arrived on campus, his tastes tended more toward the Beatles than Bach. Like most teens, he thought classical music was irrelevant — something enjoyed by tuxedo-clad aficionados in stuffy concert halls. But during his freshman year at Columbia, Bodkin happened to live next door to a cellist.

“He played me Beethoven’s op. 133, the Große Fuge, which is undoubtedly the composer’s most modernist, experimental piece. It was so at odds with everything I thought I knew about classical music,” Bodkin says.

Bodkin became obsessed. He listened to the fugue up to fifteen times a day, then went to the library and downloaded every piece of classical music he could find. By the end of the year, he was the only non-musician member of the Columbia Chamber Players and had become an evangelist.

“It had filled my interior world with such depth,” Bodkin says. “I knew I was going to devote my life to sharing this kind of music with other people.”

A few summers later, Bodkin was interning for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At night, he would gather with several musician friends and watch them play. The mood was festive and casual, but at the center was a pure appreciation for the art. Bodkin started to wonder if this experience was something he could replicate.

The result was Groupmuse, a company that Bodkin founded in January 2013. Groupmuse matches party hosts with classical musicians. The service is free, and anyone can sign up. Hosts register on the company’s site, schedule a concert in their home, and invite a minimum of ten guests. Two-thirds of the spots can be reserved for their friends. The rest are offered to the public, who can find tickets online. All guests are requested to donate at least ten dollars, which goes directly to the musicians.

Musicians perform at a Groupmuse party in New York City this past winter. / Photograph by Sam Bodkin

Bodkin says that Groupmuse parties are not what most people picture when they think of a classical performance. There’s eating and drinking and socializing before and after the music. The audience often ends up sitting on the floor, and they are encouraged to react to the music, and to applaud between movements.

“I think the entire reason that classical music has been dying out is that the younger generation is intimidated by the cultural implications of the concert. When you don’t have much money, the last thing you want to do is spend it on a ticket where you’re told how to behave: when to clap, how to dress. It’s not that people don’t appreciate the music,” he says. “They don’t like the culture that comes with the music.”

In the last three years, Groupmuse has hosted over one thousand parties and has been featured on NPR and in Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal. While most of the events have taken place in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, Groupmuse plans to expand to more cities. A recent Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $130,000, will help fund that effort.

“People have been worried about the future of classical music, but in a world so desperately in need of beauty, classical music is certainly in no risk of dying,” says Bodkin. “Classical music is one of our deepest and most profound forms of expression ... it just needs to get out more.”

Titanosaurus Rex

Diego Pol ’04GSAS uncovers a bone of the titanosaurus.

Diego Pol ’04GSAS has found the world’s biggest dinosaur. Pol and his team of paleontologists spent four years in southern Argentina unearthing the bones of the titanosaurus, which was 122 feet long and likely weighed over seventy tons (that’s about the heft of ten African elephants). A model of the beast now stretches over two rooms at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Head Honcho

Jared Grusd ’06BUS, one of the “coolest, most inspiring people in the New York tech industry,” according to Business Insider, was recently named CEO of the Huffington Post. The lawyer-turned-tech-executive who once worked as an associate at Skadden, Arps has held senior leadership positions at Google, AOL, and Spotify and has taught at Columbia Business School, where he also serves as a member of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center’s advisory board. Under Grusd’s leadership, the Huffington Post recently expanded into China — the fifteenth country to have its own edition. According to the Wall Street Journal, Grusd will oversee the launch of a new international edition every seven to eight weeks, to reach a total of fifty by 2020.

Making a Hit

Making a Hit

As Columbia film students in 2005, Moira Demos ’96CC, ’08SOA and Laura Ricciardi ’07SOA stumbled across a New York Times story with an incredible plotline. A Wisconsin man named Steven Avery had served eighteen years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was exonerated by DNA evidence and released, was hailed as a poster child for the Innocence Project, and sued the local police department for negligence. But as his suit was pending, Avery was arrested again — this time for murder.

Demos and Ricciardi packed their bags and moved to rural Wisconsin, where they spent the next ten years, off and on, filming what would become an increasingly complex case. The result was Making a Murderer, a ten-part documentary released on Netflix this past December 18. Like the podcast Serial and the HBO series The Jinx, the controversial documentary has clearly struck a nerve, inspiring everything from a Tumblr dedicated to the fashion of Avery’s lawyers to a 300,000-person petition urging President Obama ’83CC to pardon Avery (an impossibility, since Avery was convicted under state law). As a result of the documentary, the Wisconsin Innocence Project has agreed to reexamine Avery’s case.

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